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Are Vintage Rolex Watches Waterproof?

There is an important distinction between water-resistant and waterproof, and this is especially relevant to vintage Rolex watches.

The US FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has argued that it’s not possible to 100% shield a watch from water in all conditions. Hence the term waterproof has been widely dropped since the 1960s, and replaced with the term water-resistant to a specified depth.

In 1990 the International Organization for Standardization introduced a standard for water-resistant watches which also prohibits the term waterproof. This standard was intended for watches worn for ordinary daily use, including exercises such as swimming. The second set of standards were introduced in 1996 specifically for Dive Watches. 
Rolex originally designed the Oyster case in 1926 to be waterproof to 50 meters. Subsequent revisions to the Oyster case and screw-down crown have extended this waterproof rating well beyond 100m in the Sea-Dweller.

The vintage Oyster case is recognizable by the screw-down case back. Contrary to popular opinion, not all Oyster cases were round with some of the very first being cushion-shaped, and even hexagonal. An Oyster case is nearly always indicated by the word Oyster on the dial, but like all things vintage Rolex, there are exceptions.

Particular care must be taken with vintage watches predating the 1960 ISO standards. 
Vintage Rolex Bubblebacks often had Oyster cases and early screw-down crowns. Early pocket and trench watches are not waterproof and have very limited moisture resistance. Some early chronographs (pre-Daytona) had Oyster cases but did not have waterproof pushers. These should be kept away from water. Later iterations had screw-down pushers. Chronographs should NEVER be activated underwater.

Vintage dress watches may have some water resistance sufficient for hand washing or a rain shower but should be kept dry. 

Snap-on (not screw-down) case backs should be assumed to have no water-resistance. Such as the Rolex Precision ref. 9708 and others.

The Super Oyster crown was not-screw-down but advertised as water-resistant. Unsurprisingly it was made for only three years and used on early Oyster references such as the Oyster Precision and Oysterdate. These Super Oyster crowns are rare and were often replaced during service.

The Rolex Submariner dive watches in debuted 1953 with the Twinlock winding crown. It had two rubber O-ring gaskets rather than the previous single metal gasket. This creates two sealed zones hence the name Twinlock. 

In 1970, Rolex released a third-generation winding crown called Triplock. It has three sealed zones and debuted on the Sea-Dweller dive watch.


These developments are landmarks in the Rolex journey towards highly water-resistant watches. The deeper story of this evolution is covered in The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.

Conclusion

Many vintage Rolex watches were designed to be waterproof and if serviced professionally, can withstand wet and humid environments plus everyday recreational swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. But just because you can doesn't mean you should!

Consider this - You can buy a 200m ISO-certified watch like the Seiko SKX009K1 or the Citizen Promaster BN0151‑09l for less than $200. There is no practical reason to subject a vintage watch to sustained submersion in seawater.

You should rinse your Rolex Oyster watch under the tap every time it’s exposed to anything other than freshwater. Chlorinated water in swimming pools and saltwater are particularly harsh on rubber gaskets and will dry them out, reducing their effectiveness. 
Corroded, desiccated rubber gaskets are not waterproof, and are always changed at service time.

Case corrosion and pitting will also compromise water resistance. Particularly around the case back opening (mid-case) or the upper case where the crystal and bezel meet the case.


Vintage Watchmakers Pressure Testing Tool

Pressure testing is essential if you're considering swimming, diving or just hot-tubbing with your vintage Rolex. If serviced well and worn responsibly, vintage Rolex Oyster cases are sufficiently water-resistant for any daily use.

Keep vintage Rolex non-Oyster watches away from the hot tub, sauna, swimming pool, and ocean. 

If you insist on going diving with a vintage Rolex Oyster sports watch, have it serviced and pressure tested first.

If you'd like to learn more about vintage Rolex watches, please subscribe to our list or download the free sample sections of The Vintage Rolex Field Guide.



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